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Led writing groups

1 August, 2010

Earlier this year, I decided to road test a led writing group, one with a formal leader or teacher. My plan was to attend for three months and evaluate the experience. But shortly after making this decision, everything changed.

The group’s leader, who had managed the group for years, announced he was quitting. In his 80’s and in poor health, perhaps he’d had enough. Most of the members vowed to continue, but soon the original group split into two separate groups. One was a led group, established by a member who decided to take on the teacher-leader role.  The other was a peer group, with no formal leader.

I attended a meeting of the new led group.  As a writer and a former teacher of group communication, I was curious. Would the group dynamics be different? Would the new group meet my needs? The members were still pleasant and enthusiastic. But something seemed to be missing. With the formal teacher now replaced by someone from the ranks, the group seemed in danger of losing its cohesiveness, what some would call its heart. I decided that for me, the costs of being in a new group would probably outweigh the benefits.

Although my road testing was cut short, I have identified the benefits and costs of being part of the original led group. I hope this is helpful to others who are thinking of joining or leaving a writing group.

Benefits

Some aspects of the group helped me grow as a writer:

  • Motivation: Reading out my work to a live audience motivated me to develop and polish my drafts.
  • Challenges: The challenges stretched me as a writer. The group met weekly so I needed to develop material fast. The maximum word limit of 800 words had me writing pieces much shorter than my usual  2,500-word stories.  I looked forward to the assignments becoming progressively more difficult.
  • Experimentation: The group was a safe place to try out different styles and forms, e.g., poetry, personal narrative.
  • New ideas: In responding to prompts and reading others’ work, I found new ideas to freewrite about or develop.
  • Teaching and learning: The leader was skilled in keeping up the group’s momentum and modelling how to give feedback. He provided mini-lectures about the craft of writing, which I enjoyed.

Costs

Some aspects of the group did not help me move towards achieving my writing goals.

  • Time and workload: I needed to put aside time to attend the weekly meeting and to write a new piece each week. I found it hard to keep up my ‘normal’ writing while also developing material to present to the group.
  • Variety: The leader welcomed anyone who wanted to write, which meant that the group’s members varied widely in terms of their writing interests, ability and  knowledge.   Some members were serious and disciplined about their writing; others attended more for the social aspects. The quality of the writing also varied considerably.
  • Difficult people: Like all groups, this one had a couple of difficult members.

The best led group

Although my time with the original group was short, I have learned what I value in a led writing group. I do not need a homogenous group in terms of form, e.g., a group where only short story writers are allowed. More important is that all the group’s members have the same writing goal. I would be interested if I found a group where everyone took their writing seriously, working to improve and perhaps actively seeking external recognition and rewards.

Led groups have their own problems, sometimes because the leader is opinionated, overly critical, or simply talks too much.  The best leaders know how to work the magic that turns a disparate bunch of writers into a cohesive,  supportive  group.

If  I ever find the right led group, I would join. Meanwhile,  I’m back on my own.

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